Illustration by Sarah Yu of a character from Never Have I Ever

‘Never Have I Ever’ Offers a Funny, Diverse Look Into Generation Z

The coming-of-age show deals with cultural identity, grief and teenage romance in a touching and relatable way.
May 7, 2020
8 mins read

Netflix has been experimenting a lot with its teen shows lately. From the romantic comedy “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” to the quirky “Sex Education,” the platform has a wide range of options for every type of young viewer. But Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s newest collaboration, “Never Have I Ever,” is by far the most superior of Netflix’s coming-of-age series. It checks all the boxes for the long-awaited representation that Hollywood needs. The production is funny, touching and definitely relatable to everyone.

The story centers around the Indian American Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). Vishwakumar is juggling being an average American teenager and a first-generation Desi American child to a strict Indian mother.

On top of being pitted between opposing cultures, Vishwakumar has to deal with the sudden loss of her beloved father. Set in Sherman Oaks, California, “Never Have I Ever” unveils the dynamics of Gen Zers’ lives in a culturally diverse environment.

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Similar to Kaling’s other productions, “Never Have I Ever” is jam-packed with amusing punchlines. From an arm hair scuffle to a barehanded fight with a coyote, Kaling and Fisher experimented a lot with their new show in order to make it entertaining. It is also occasionally narrated by John McEnroe, which is a funny twist on its own. This Netflix series truly has it all.

Since the series is loosely based on Kaling’s life, the main character, Vishwakumar, may remind you of Mindy Lahiri from “The Mindy Project.” Both characters are flawed and rather self-centered, which makes it a lot easier to find them relatable. After all, don’t we all have moments when the world only revolves around us and our problems?

Although Vishwakumar can be annoyingly selfish, she is not completely out of touch with reality. She is very caring to her friends and family once she realizes her priorities, a trait that makes her lovable.

In Episode 1 of “Never Have I Ever,” the audiences are given a quick look into Vishwakumar’s tragic freshman year. Her father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), suddenly dies of a heart attack at her recital. The traumatizing incident paralyzes her for a few months.

While dealing with that loss, Vishwakumar begins to obsess over her school’s hottie, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), whose hotness helps her get back on her feet. As she returns to school, Vishwakumar wishes to the Hindu gods to make her popular, have less arm hair and to finally have a handsome jock boyfriend who could rock her all night long.

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Within the first few minutes of the show, the creators present the entire conflict of the series. One being the lead character’s struggle with her dad’s passing, and the other being her identity crisis as an Indian American girl.

Although formatted as a teen show, the plot is something that people of all ages and colors can connect with. Many people have had troubles accepting the loss of someone they love dearly. A lot of people have also had at least one existential crisis throughout their lives, feeling out of place in the community. This is what makes the show easily digestible.

First and foremost, the story is about the horror of losing a loved one and the unhealthy ways of moving on from that loss. Joshua Rivera from The Verge said that “’Never Have I Ever’” is “a story that takes teen rom-com tropes and turns them into a vehicle for exploring grief.”

Instead of facing her sadness upfront, Vishwakumar chooses to divert all of her attention to losing her virginity and becoming the school’s “it girl.” Accompanied by her two best friends, together they go through the list on how to be cool.

Evidently, this is not the best method for overcoming grief. The emotions she suppresses are bound to resurface, and that might break her even more. It’s concerning to see, but we can’t really judge her for it. What do we really know about grief? There’s no such thing as the perfect way to grieve. Grieving is a custom made process; it’s not mass-produced.

The protagonist’s raw reactions to death makes her ways of dealing with it very understandable to the audience. It reminds the watchers of how grim the truth can be, and how tempting running away may appear.

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The other emphasis of the show is the challenges that Vishwakumar faces as a young, first-generation Indian American girl. She is surrounded by friends who also come from diverse cultural backgrounds. Eleanor is Southeast Asian, and Fabiola is Afro Latina.

Vishwakumar’s problem is not that she is alone in a pool of white kids. The biggest issue she faces is that she is simultaneously too American to be comfortable in a saree, and too Indian to get accepted in an American university based solely on her merits.

Newbie actress Ramakrishnan explained in an interview that her role is important because, “for a lot of South Asian youth it’s hard to figure out what makes you South Asian enough.”

In the scenes where they showcase the celebration for Ganesh Puja, the protagonist expresses her frustration, “Some old loser was telling me that I am too Indian and some other people think I’m not Indian enough. And honestly all I wanna do is eat a donut, but I’m stuck here.”

As a young person of color placed between two contrasting traditions and beliefs, it is difficult to figure out where she truly belongs. The show doesn’t just apply to Desi teenagers though (even if it aims at the heart of a teen Desi experience), but also for Generation Z in general, and questioning one’s identity is a staple of the show. Vishwakumar’s confusion is a seemingly relevant struggle for the diverse Gen Z.

Generation Z tends to have the desire to be outside the box, while fearing being labeled as odd and unapproachable. A person of color could be uncomfortable in celebrating their traditions because no other inherently “cool” people act the way they do. They can be embarrassed of their unique roots because they’re afraid that it will exclude them further.

On so many levels, “Never Have I Ever” is such a relevant show. Although it attempts to bring as much diverse representation as possible, the series is not trying to be the ultimate generalized depiction of what current Desi teens are like.

Each character is illustrated with such depth that differences do occur even when the outside looks similar. There are Vishwakumar’s two best friends, for instance. Fabiola is both Afro Latina and gay, while Eleanor is both Asian and vibrantly confident. None of the characters in the show are two-dimensional.

Through this production, the creators are showing the teenage Desi experience, “a bit rebellious and out of place in their community,” but that “there’s also others who are comfortable enough to embrace their full-on Indian-ness even if it means being a living stereotype.” Again, experiences are not mass-produced; they are engraved accordingly.

“Never Have I Ever” is a great show because it is brilliantly funny, it ensures diverse representations of characters and it contains meaningful coming-of-age anecdotes that are relevant to today’s youth.

Nanda Illahi, Okayama University

Writer Profile

Nanda Illahi

Okayama University
Political Science, Cultural Anthropology, and Management

Nanda Illahi is a political science student at Okayama University. Nanda has always had an interest in writing and has channeled that passion through various forms of storytelling on her website, school’s student journal and more.

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